According to the most popular entry on Urban Dictionary—the go-to “dictionary” for all slang—cushioning is “a dating technique where along with your main piece you also have several ‘cushions’, other people you’ll chat and flirt with to cushion the potential blow of your main break-up and not leave you alone.”
Multiple outlets, such as InStyle, have noted that cushioning often occurs when a relationship is first blossoming before anything is “official.” That’s why I wouldn’t consider cushioning unethical, exactly, because you haven’t had “the talk” yet (i.e., “Are we monogamous and no longer going to see/text/flirt with other people?”).
Cushioning can potentially be a good thing if you’re not sure where you stand in a relationship, explains Gigi Engle, resident Womanizer sexologist and author ofAll The F*cking Mistakes: a guide to sex, love, and life. While you’re dating around, it can be beneficial to have a few people you’re talking to or seeing at one time. “This will help you keep feelings in check and figure out what it is you actually want in a relationship,” Engle says. “You’re acting within ethical lanes as long as you haven’t defined the relationship.” That said, if someone wants to get serious, and you agree but are still talking to other people, you’re crossing into hazy and unethical territory.
People cushion for various reasons, so it’s tough to pinpoint exactly one reason why a person may choose to have “backburners,” especially if they really like their “main piece.” Nevertheless, Engle’s inclination is that if you’re in a serious relationship and are using human “cushions” to protect yourself, you likely don’t feel comfortable being totally vulnerable in your relationship. “You’re using the validation of others to make up for your lack of self-confidence or your confidence in the relationship,” she says. It also indicates that you’re not attuned at asking for what you want, specifically, more attention and security in your relationship. Whatever your reason for cushioning, Engle deems in a breach of trust if you’re cushioning while in a committed relationship.
Not to mention that when you cushion, you’re leading on the other people you’re using as cushions. They don’t know that you’re currently in some sort of situationship with someone else and are currently using them as a backup just in case things go south.
If you find yourself cushioning, Engle recommends sussing out exactly why you’re engaging in this behavior. Is it because you’ve been cheated on in the past and have trust issues? Do you think your partner is going to leave you? Are you insecure and seeking external validation? Are you afraid of really liking and committing to a single person and then getting hurt? Perhaps you really don’t like this person all that much, but just like the stability (or sex)?
Once you have a better understanding of why you’re cushioning, you then know what your next steps are, explains Engle. If you’re afraid of vulnerability, then you need to talk to your partner about it and perhaps see a therapist. If you don’t think you’re getting your needs met by this one person, let them know how they can better support you. If you simply like having someone around, then do your partner a favor and break up with them.
The thing is, when you cushion, you’re not giving the primary relationship a real chance. “It’s like you already have one foot out the door,” says Engle.
So if you like your partner and see the potential for something more serious, then cut this cushioning nonsense out. You can always go back to texting and flirting with multiple people if things don’t work out long-term. However, if you’re going to attempt to be in a committed relationship, then actually attempt to be in a committed relationship.
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